Superman 1.73: The Takeoff

“Christopher felt very strongly about staying in character, all the time,” Margot Kidder says, in one of the DVD featurettes. “I, on the other hand, got really bored during the flying scenes, because there were Chris and I strapped together for ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. So I would hide books down my front, or try and tease Chris, and he’d be going, ‘shut up!’ And we would bicker, and the poor crew would look away, and they’d go ‘action’, and suddenly we’d be madly in love, and they’d go ‘cut’, and we’d go back to our bickering.

“And at one point, I remember Christopher said, ‘Don’t you stay in character?’ and I said, ‘Oh, Chris, for god’s sake, I’ve been Lois Lane for a year now, and all we have to do is look left!'”

So this is what happens to you, I guess, when you spend fifteen weeks writing about the same movie: I’m watching this incredibly romantic night flight sequence, and all I can think about is how much of a pain it was for them to shoot.

This is the big moment in Superman: The Movie that everything hinges upon: the climax of Act 2, marking the break point between the screwball-comedy romantic section of the movie and the more action-oriented Superman vs Luthor section. If anything romantic is going to happen between Superman and Lois Lane, then it’s going to happen right now.

It also happens to be one of the most technically challenging sequences. They spent a year trying to figure out how to make Superman fly, and now they’ve got to do it again with two people, in various configurations.

This first shot of Lois and Superman rising into the air took many retakes, and they never did get it done to Richard Donner’s satisfaction. There were too many things that could go wrong, with the two of them in separate harnesses attached to cables. Donner eventually used a shot that he called a “desperation take”, because it was the best one that they could manage.

During this sequence, the lovebirds take a tour through the sky of nighttime Metropolis — otherwise known as New York City, obviously — which is very sweet, and much better than the description in the shooting script. Here’s how the script describes this entire sequence:

EXT. SKY    NIGHT

SUPERMAN flies through the night sky holding LOIS, his swirling cape covering them. They look off as CAMERA PANS DOWN: the gleaming lights of Metropolis grow smaller in the distance.

FLYING MONTAGE

A series of aerial POVS INTERCUT with flying reaction shots of SUPERMAN and LOIS as they circle the world, passing through different time zones.

EXT. PARIS – NIGHT

The illuminated Place D’Etoile at night.

EXT. VATICAN – NIGHT

The illuminated St. Peter’s Square and Cathedral.

EXT. GIZA – EGYPT –  DAY

The sun rises behind the Great pyramids.

EXT. AGRA – INDIA – DAY

A day view of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

EXT. CHINA – DUSK

The sun sets behind the Great Wall of China.

EXT. METROPOLIS (NEW YORK) – NIGHT

The glittering lights of Metropolis loom up again.

EXT. SKY – ANGLE DOWN ON LOIS’ TERRACE – NIGHT

CAMERA ZOOMS DOWN on LOIS’ terrace from the sky.

EXT. LOIS’ TERRACE – NIGHT

SUPERMAN deposits LOIS gently on the terrace once again. She is absolutely struck dumb with wonder, stares at him.

So that, I think, would probably have been terrible. It would have been like flying past a series of postcards, with the focus of the scene being on acknowledging the different landmarks, rather than on Superman and Lois exploring the sky together. In the finished scene, there is one famous landmark that they pay attention to, but the focus is on how they move around the Statue of Liberty, rather than zipping from one thing to another.

This sequence is an important showcase for John Williams’ music: except for a couple of nervous squeals from Lois at the beginning, there’s no dialogue or sound effects to get in the way of the orchestra. This is the Love theme in full flow, a five-minute horizontal dance number where the music supplies the emotional background for Lois’ adventure in the air.

The piece is structured as a bed of strings and woodwinds, punctuated by stirring notes from the brass.The strings and woodwinds convey warmth and comfort, the reassuring presence of Superman holding Lois, safe in his arms. The brass comes in to say wow, look at that, as Lois gets more comfortable being in the air, and starts to enjoy looking at the world from the air.

For these flying shots against a real background, they’re using front projection as an in-camera effect — projecting film that they recorded in New York, and then shooting Lois and Superman against that background. They’re not moving — they’re lying in one place, with the camera moving around them and lots of wind machines blowing around his cape and her dress.

I think that this shot of their approach to the Statue of Liberty is probably the most impressive in the sequence: an unbroken twelve-second shot where they appear to fly towards the camera, and then make a bank turn toward the statue, moving away from the camera again. You might think that twelve seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, but then you look at all of the camera moves that they do in that shot, and you realize that twelve seconds is an eternity. Doing those moves and keeping it all in sync with the footage that they shot from a helicopter eight months earlier is an incredible special-effects achievement.

Using the Statue of Liberty as a focal point is quite beautiful, because the statue represents the United States welcoming new citizens to our shores — they weren’t thinking about extraterrestrials at the time, but Kryptonians are immigrants too. It also has a nice resonance with Superman’s ideal of “truth, justice and the American way,” which you wouldn’t have if they’d used the Chrysler Building or some other monument to 20th-century commerce.

By the way, I’ve never really noticed before how grumpy the Statue of Liberty looks. I suppose she’s been standing out there in all weather holding up her arm since the 1880s, and I can see how that could wear on her nerves after a while.

Then there’s a little fluttery woodwind line, as they break through the clouds into the open sky. They’re in the studio again for this shot, on harnesses carrying them up through a bank of smoke. You can see their shadows on the cloudbank as they pass by the moon, which is actually a lamp that’s covered with white plastic and painted with the moon’s pattern.

Then there’s the sequence where Lois gets more comfortable and tries to fly on her own, which I always find a bit puzzling.

The scene suggests that Lois is perfectly safe in the air, as long as she keeps in physical contact with Superman. At the start of this section, she’s nervous, just hanging on to one arm, but he grins at her and encourages her to let go with one hand, and have the sensation of flying on her own.

She does that, and she has a marvelous time soaring through the air, but as she gets more and more comfortable, he gives her more slack…

gradually letting her go until they’re just holding hands…

and then just holding on by their fingertips…

and it’s at this moment of perfect, united joy and delight…

that he fucking lets go, and she plunges into a terrifying free fall that lasts for ten seconds, which is quite long enough to make her black out and probably die, or at least fuel a lifetime of nightmares every time she tries to go to sleep.

Now, the puzzling thing about this sequence for me is not the weird physics of how his flight power works, and why breaking physical contact suddenly snaps her back into the grip of gravity, because it’s magic, and it’s not trying to be anything else.

I’m puzzled by the emotional story here. It just seems really irresponsible of him to let her out that far — which is clearly his choice, not an accident. I guess you could say that having a passenger is a new experience for him, and he doesn’t know what’s going to happen — there’s a reaction shot where he looks surprised, before hurrying down to catch her again — but it makes me uncomfortable every time. It’s probably a metaphor for something.

Effects-wise, I don’t know how they accomplished this shot, with him flying down past the frame behind her, and then appearing up from the bottom of the frame to gather her in his arms.

They might be using front projection for the first part of the shot, and then they hoist him up to make the catch, but I’m not sure. It’s possible that they just dropped Margot Kidder out of an airplane with a GoPro, and waited for Superman to come along and catch her.

Anyway, that moment of terror apparently makes Lois horny like you wouldn’t believe, so it all works out. That leads into my least favorite musical number of all time, which we will discuss tomorrow.

Tomorrow:
I love musical numbers, so why
do I hate “Can You Read My Mind”?
1.74: Frequently Asked Questions

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

17 thoughts on “Superman 1.73: The Takeoff

    1. I read that scene as Superman getting as lovestruck as Lois was, to the point where he forgot, for a split second, that she needs him in the most literal sense to stay airborne. His look of surprise sells it for me–that sudden OMG when you realize you left your wallet in the bar, or didn’t turn off the stove, or just let your love slip downward towards Earth, whoops.

      Superman is super, but he’s also a man. It’s too easy to get so caught up in the kind of moment you wait all your life to have that you forget it’s a moment. Other moments are waiting, and if you aren’t paying attention, they’ll take matters into their own hands.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Lois wants slack, Supey gives her slack. She wants him to let go, he lets go. How was he supposed to know she wasn’t going to take hold of his wrist herself while she was still alongside him? He can’t read her mind, and this scene obviates any need to ask whether he can.

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  2. It seems to me that Lois tries to fly on her own, having “co-flown” with him at a finger’s breadth away. He has this gravitic field to help things around him defy gravity. Just as she becomes his equal and flies beside him rather than with him, she breaks the connection.

    She wants to be his equal, but she’s only human.

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  3. So, originally Superman flew Lois around the world and got her back to her balcony in about an hour. Say maybe two.
    How fast would they need to be going? Assuming of course that they slow down at the scenic bits like the Taj Mahal and speed up over the Pacific Ocean. Sure, he could do it; but Lois would be burnt to a cinder by air friction or crushed by g-forces.
    And it’s very lucky that there’s suddenly absolutely nothing else going on that needs Superman’s attention; no babies to be saved from high rise apartment fires, no ducklings stuck in storm drains.

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    1. “Sure, he could do it; but Lois would be burnt to a cinder by air friction or crushed by g-forces.” To quote the MST3k theme song, “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes/and other science facts (la la la!)/just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show,/I should really just relax…'” If Santa can do his job (https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2018/12/23/this-is-how-santa-claus-can-deliver-presents-to-the-entire-world-in-one-night/?sh=3be729243084), Superman can do this.

      Maybe it’s just me reading too much subtext into things, but I always thought the scene in _Lois and Clark_ where *Jimmy* flies with Superman was…interesting…Sure, earlier in the episode Jimmy had (under the influence of a pheromone perfume made by the villain of the week) been aggressively hitting on models he was photographing for the _Planet_, but still…the 1st L&C Jimmy always came across to me as having a bit of a man-crush on Superman.

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    2. Thank you, my thoughts exactly. That sequence would have stretched my suspension of disbelief long past the breaking point. As it is, the romance becomes the focal point and the flying supports that.

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  4. Sally Field, in YouTube clips about her experience on the show “The Flying Nun,” hated being up on a crane or suspended by wires. She said the crane driver would sometimes smack her into a building. Granted, “The Flying Nun” special effects were primitive and nothing in comparison to “Superman The Movie,” but the actor discomfort issue was real for Sally Field (who I think did not have a stunt double for the first two seasons), as it was for Christopher and Margot in 1977-78 when filming a blockbuster movie.
    And Karl, enjoyed the Forbes article link about science/technology and how Santa can make his trip around the world in one night. Not too long ago, one of my daughters said she had figured out Santa. “Oh,” I said, thinking the jig was up. “What did you figure out?” I asked, in neutral tones.
    “He can fly all the way around the world in just one night because of all the different time zones. With the different time zones, he has more time to deliver all over the world,” she said.
    Realizing her belief in Santa remained unshaken, I just said, “Your theory makes sense.”
    The other daughter suspected that Santa was actually “mom and dad” a bit sooner, but that’s another story.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “I’ve never really noticed before how grumpy the Statue of Liberty looks.”

    She’s just waiting for everyone to blink!

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  6. “Anyway, that moment of terror apparently makes Lois horny like you wouldn’t believe, so it all works out.”

    He must’ve heard that old chestnut of hetero dating advice that women get sexually aroused when they’re afraid. I think they meant take her to a scary movie or a haunted house though, Supe.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. If flying was easier they could have added a little scene where little Clark is running along holding his mom’s hand and suddenly he takes off and she goes up with him. But as it is, has Clark really flown with anybody before? We haven’t seen him or met anyone he’d be likely to invite to go flying. I don’t think Marlon Brando passed on very much useful information, like how you fly with someone or what he had learned when he was Skye Masterston. How did Clark know that if Lois stayed next to him she wouldn’t still be in the magic flying bubble? Although he could have caught her faster in any case.

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  8. The beginning of the flight scene with Lois, when she looks down off the edge of the building as they begin to float, panicking, is a bit funnier/darker when you remember that she JUST nearly died from falling out of a helicopter from a very tall building. In the real world, she would probably be dealing with some significant trauma from that, and this would be the worst time for Superman to take her up in the air. Thankfully Lois bounces back so quickly that she doesn’t even seem to remember the terrifying experience. At least, until Superman drops her….

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  9. > she plunges into a terrifying free fall that lasts for ten seconds, which is quite long enough to make her black out and probably die

    Skydivers might have something to say about this part, seeing as the whole goal of a dive is to spend as long as possible in free fall, but you probably meant this tongue in cheek so I’ll just shut up 😉

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